How British Track Cycling Superstar Jason Kenny Trains His Legs
The Olympic legend talks killer squats, explosive power cleans and the secrets behind his leg-pumping workouts
Following his stunning hat-trick of gold medals at Rio 2016, British track cycling powerhouse Jason Kenny became the joint most successful British Olympic athlete in history. His career haul of six Olympic gold medals places him level with retired track cyclist Chris Hoy – but Kenny, 29, is now back in training after a break and already focusing on a historic seventh gold medal at Tokyo 2020.
During a sprint in the velodrome, Kenny hits a top speed of over 70km/h and unleashes over 2,000 watts of power. But that speed and power is built not on the track but in brutal leg-sculpting sessions in the gym, where a winning blend of raw commitment and intelligent training helps him develop explosive strength and power. Men’s Fitness met Kenny in the gym to discuss his gold medal winning workouts.
Track cyclists perform notoriously brutal leg workouts. What are your primary goals in the gym?
Basically the main goal is to get stronger in order to raise our potential to produce more power on the track. I think without the gym you would get to a certain level on the track and produce a certain amount of power. But we do gym work to raise that level and to give us more potential. It’s obviously not quite as simple as just getting stronger to go faster – it never is – but that is the main principle. Strength is one of the main building blocks for making yourself go faster on the bike – you are trying to make your engine bigger to produce as much “beans” as possible on the track.
How do you phase your workouts throughout the year?
The way that I always learned to train was that you build strength, then you build power, then you put it on the bike so you can go faster, and then you try to go faster for longer. And really that is the same basic principle I work on today, but over the years I have become much more specific.
If you are trying to get strong, fast and fit all at the same time you end up juggling all these balls so you end up being good at training but never being really good at everything. So now in a strength phase I will focus purely on strength in the gym three to four times a week and not go on the track as much. Then when it comes to putting it on the bike I will put the gym on the back burner and focus on going fast on the bike instead. So it’s much more targeted.
What are your key lifts?
I have always squatted. That is my bread and butter in the gym. It’s not uncommon for me to do three gym sessions a week and to do squats in every single one of them. I think the legs can take quite a lot of volume – I can just keep hammering my legs! In every session I start with a warm-up, then I do my two key lifts before finishing with some conditioning. The two main lifts will usually include squats and then I will do the leg press, which is usually single leg, or power cleans or snatch – something explosive.
Which muscle groups do you focus on?
When you are on your bike, at the end of the day the muscles that produce the most power are your quads. A little bit from your glutes, but mainly the quads, so inevitably that is my main focus in the gym. In the past I have done specific work on my calves but today that would come under general conditioning.
So you never skip a leg day?
Every day is leg day for us! I don’t do anything else. I don’t do any specific upper-body sessions, though it gets ticked off with the exercises we do. Cyclists go in the gym to go fast on the bike and any muscle mass on our arms or upper body is just extra weight. But we also do core and general conditioning exercises that we know won’t build excessive muscle mass.
How do you structure your workouts?
In a typical session the squat is my main lift and I will also do a leg press or a clean – it depends on the structure of the session. If I have hit my quads hard during the squat with some heavy lifts, I will do the leg press to get some volume in. Or if I have done lots of volume on the squat and I want to put some power down, I might do some cleans instead with some fast, explosive movements. That’s the way I offset the two main lifts. I always do squats first though because I had issues in the past when I would do cleans first and then felt too much fatigue for my squats. Others do them in a different order but that works best for me.
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What is your squat PB?
My best ever was 200kg on the nose but I don’t tend to do that any more. I was 22, 23 years old at the time. I don’t worry about the weight size any more because I accept I will never be the strongest in the gym – there are some strong lads in there. So if I am doing 180kg for two reps I am happy with that. It is just about getting plenty of weight on but it is also about intent. I lift 180kg but I do it with maximum intent.
How do you play around with sets and reps?
The basic principle is to start with lots of reps to build up your strength. One thing I have started doing recently, which I am really enjoying, is just getting the reps in. So instead of three sets of ten, I just say I am going to do 30 reps. So that might mean I do ten sets of three instead. It means I can add more weight and really go at it hard.
Which are the most painful sessions – the ones the athletes dread?
Anything with high reps. When you first start in the gym you can only push yourself so hard before your muscles give up. But with experience you get to the point when you’ve done the basic conditioning and you have more strength, so you can squat more and you can really go for it. That is when it gets brutal because you are strong enough to lift more and hurt yourself and that’s when you really kill yourself. Those sessions are tough but rewarding and you always feel good afterwards.
And which do you most enjoy?
I like doing dynamic stuff like power cleans and more recently snatches. I’m not bad at them, not amazing, but I like that full-body movement – it takes a bit of co-ordination and thinking but you still have to have maximum commitment to do it.
How have your workouts changed over the years?
The biggest thing that has changed for me is time spent in the gym. When I first started doing gym sessions they could be two hours plus – real epics. But I spat the dummy and got sick of it so I stripped it right back to my key lifts. I’ve now ended up in between, so I am in the gym for about an hour and 20 minutes. That time is broken up into three categories: warm-up, key lifts and a conditioning circuit. But it does have to change to keep moving forward. If you just do the same thing you get stuck.
What time of day do you prefer to hit the gym?
I prefer the afternoon. I used to train in the gym only in the morning for quite a long time and then I experimented in the afternoon for a bit. Now I just train in afternoon if I can, just because I feel more warmed up later in the day, I can lift more, and I feel better. In the morning it takes me a bit more time to warm up.
Do you use technology like power meters and speed sensors?
I have tried new bits and pieces in the past. I often train in my gym at home so I have gone back to no numbers at all, which is quite nice in its own way. But in the past I have used devices to monitor the speed of the bar and power output during the lift. It is very good for us as cyclists because we are used to monitoring data, particularly in the velodrome. If you love your numbers, track cycling is a dream! So it felt natural to do that in the gym. Checking the data is also useful for balancing fatigue. If your speed or strength is down one day it could be because you are tired.
What is the aim of your general conditioning circuit at the end of your workouts?
What we do on the track is very repetitive and a lot of injuries in cycling actually come from over-use as opposed to impact. We only move in a certain direction on the bike. So in the gym we can offset that and make sure we are generally healthy, strong and flexible.
What does your general conditioning circuit involve?
Typically I will do stiff-leg deadlifts for general conditioning, for the hamstrings and for looking after the knees. A lot of the stuff I do is quad-heavy but this works the hamstrings which is nice for balance and knee health. I like the hanging leg raise too, that’s one of my personal favourites. I like the fact you are working the whole chain.
Although I don’t specifically work the upper body the hanging leg raises work your arms and the cleans hit your shoulders so you get good strength but without the size that comes from the bench press or pec deck. I prefer to do it as a circuit because it’s more efficient when you get to that point in the session – I can get more in without hanging around in the gym all day. It is more about doing what you enjoy, as long as you are ticking the boxes for general conditioning.
And what’s the atmosphere like among the top-level track cyclists in the gym at the Manchester Velodrome?
It is good fun in the gym. We tend to blast out the music in there so it is a good atmosphere. Most people respond to a buzzing atmosphere when it comes to lifting because you want to be quite psyched up for it, you want to get stuck into it.
Jason Kenny is an ambassador for Wiggle. To find out more visit wiggle.co.uk (opens in new tab).
Kenny’s Killer Lifts
Why Squats are about pure strength, which is the building block for power on the bike. I also like to do seated squats and partial squats, which are great for getting the weight up. I like to do them quite explosively as well. I can lift 220-230kg with a partial squat which is good for building power. But the best thing about partial squats is that when you go back to doing normal squats all of sudden 160-170kg feels like nothing.
How I do exactly the same thing every time, whether there’s 20kg on the bar or 190kg. My approach is always the same – I always set up the bar at the right height, then I will look at the middle of the bar before dipping under. Then I take a big deep breath. In terms of technique, the main things to remember are good posture to start with, keep your weight on your heels, and keep your chest up. I don’t chase depth so I just aim to keep my thighs about parallel to the floor.
Why I tend to do single-leg exercises on the leg press. You can lift more than half with one leg for some reason – if I can lift 220kg with a single leg, I couldn’t lift 440kg with two legs. By focusing on single-leg versions you can aim for quality. It also makes it apparent if you have one dominant leg. My left leg is not as strong as my right leg so I can address that. You are producing raw strength with the leg press but it is more leg-specific than squats where you have got your back and core chucked into the mix. On my machine at home I do about 200kg per leg.
How The main things are keeping your knee in line with your foot and thinking where your foot is on the platform. If your foot is a bit below your knee, historically that’s caused me problems so I make sure the pressure feels right. I tend to do more reps on this, maybe six to eight. It’s a really good way to get some volume and weight on.
Why Cleans are another key exercise for power. If I have done volume with my squats and I am looking for some quality, cleans are really good for that. I do snatches sometimes, but cleans are more frequent. This is normally about the explosive side of training. If the leg press is for building muscle, the clean is about using that muscle. For me, it is one more step towards improving the cycling performance.
How What I like most about cleans is that you have to commit 100% to get through the lifting process. So you start off nice and steady off the floor and just lift it really quickly. I tend to keep my reps low on cleans, so about five reps max. I am most often doing sets of twos and threes to get real quality and maximum commitment. With cleans I tend to lift a weight of 90-120kg.
Sample Leg Sessions
Photography SW Pix
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Mark Bailey is a features writer and interviewer who contributed to Coach magazine in 2015 and Men’s Fitness UK, which predated, and then shared a website with, Coach, until 2019. Mark has also written for national newspapers including The Telegraph (opens in new tab) and The Financial Times Magazine (opens in new tab), as well as magazines and websites such as Cyclist (opens in new tab) and Bike Radar (opens in new tab).